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Karim Benzema thrust into World Cup spotlight

Sunday 8 Jun 2014 10:48 a.m.

France's Karim Benzema will have a role to fill (Reuters)

France's Karim Benzema will have a role to fill (Reuters)

By Keyvan Naraghi

With injury banishing Franck Ribery from the World Cup in Brazil, Karim Benzema has now been thrust onto centre stage for France.

Ribery is widely considered France's most creative spark and his absence will leave a huge hole to fill in Les Bleus' attacking line-up.

Yet cometh the hour, cometh the man, and perhaps this is the ideal opportunity for the country's other mercurial talent, Benzema, to really start to deliver on his enormous potential.

Recovered from a groin strain and due to make his comeback against Jamaica, Benzema will now carry the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.

At 26 years of age, his record of 19 goals in 65 internationals for France is hardly record-breaking but something has changed for Benzema this year to offer hope that maybe he is ready to come of age.

He comes into his first World Cup off the back of his best season in a Real Madrid shirt, in which he scored 24 goals as his team finally won the 'decima' -- their 10th Champions League crown.

"I've improved. There's been criticism, good and bad. I'm one of the old-guard in the French team and I have to set an example," he said a week ago from France's domestic training base in Clairefontaine.

"I can bring my experience."

Ribery's breakdown since then, with a back injury, means rather sooner than later Benzema's role has developed into that of team talisman.

The flip side for Benzema is that despite his relative experience compared to most team-mates, he can't really lean on bright memories of previous success at major tournaments.

Benzema was overlooked by Raymond Domenech for the last World Cup in South Africa while in the 2008 and 2012 Euros he was as anonymous as the rest of the squad -- failing to score a goal in either tournament as France exited in the group stage in Austria and Switzerland and in the last eight two years ago in Poland and Ukraine.

His only saving grace, perhaps, is missing out on South Africa means his reputation has not been tarnished by the infamous and shameful strike during the World Cup.

However, Benzema has hardly been setting the world alight in his international career recently.

It is not so long ago that the former Lyon striker went 1,222 minutes of international football without scoring a goal -- between June 5, 2012 and October 13, 2013.

He did finally stop the rot just in time to fend off the challenge from Arsenal's Olivier Giroud for his starting berth at the apex of the France attack.

That a player lauded as the brightest new thing in French football when making his France debut in 2007 at just 19 years of age should be battling for a starting spot with a player who, despite being a year older, was still playing lower league football by the time Benzema moved to Real Madrid in 2009, demonstrated how far Benzema was from fulfilling his undoubted gifts.

However, he showed great grit and determination to get through the hard times and this season has even been recognised as an integral part of Real's galactico 'BBC' forwardline alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Garteth Bale.

He has even found a new lease of life under coach Carlo Ancelotti these last 12 months in Madrid, not least aided by the arrival of France legend and fellow French-Algerian Zinedine Zidane in a coaching capacity at the Bernabeu.

Now, after all the ups and downs of an at times seemingly unfulfilling career, Benzema will embark for Brazil on Monday as his country's undoubted first choice forward.

AFP

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